KABUL — In Washington next week, Afghan president Hamid Karzai will work to recast his image as a mercurial leader prone to outbursts against the West into one of a credible partner worthy of the thousands of U.S. troops and billions of dollars of aid still pouring into his nation in its ninth year of war.
After months of rocky relations with the Obama administration, the U.S. and Karzai are getting their partnership back on track. If he's successful in the visit, which starts Monday, the Afghan president will leave Washington with renewed legitimacy and the political backing he needs for possible peace talks with the Taliban.
The trip comes at a critical juncture in the war. At the same time that more troops and aid are moving into Afghanistan, the U.S. has made it clear that its involvement is not open-ended. President Barack Obama, who gathered his national security team to discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan on Thursday at the White House, wants to start pulling out troops in July 2011 if conditions allow. That's 15 months from now.
Karzai is traveling to Washington with nearly a dozen members of his Cabinet who will hold in-depth discussions with their counterparts about development priorities and other issues. Showing up with these ministers – many with strong backing from the international community – will help Karzai make the point that while bribery and graft is rife in some ministries, there are many Cabinet officials committed to progress and reform.
Foreign Affairs Minister Zalmay Rasoul said the trip should address three questions: "How can we finish this war? Why is it eight years on? How can we succeed with less blood and less money?"
The meetings will end with a communique, but a renewed strategic partnership agreement being drafted in Kabul and Washington won't be ready to be signed until later this year.
Karzai is going to Washington as the 30,000 U.S. reinforcements Obama dispatched to the war continue to stream into the country. About 4,500 have deployed, with another 18,000 due to arrive by late spring and the rest by early fall. The military buildup is aimed at routing the Taliban from their strongholds, especially in the south, and bolster security needed to start development projects and offer public services so Karzai's government can win the support of residents.
Thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan forces just finished a major offensive to oust the Taliban from central Helmand province in the south. They now are ramping up pressure on the Taliban's birthplace of Kandahar province next door.
A new, fragile government has been established in Helmand, but residents siding with the Karzai government and the international coalition are still subject to intimidation from the Taliban, especially at night. In Kandahar, work is being done to establish a more robust local government with links to the district level.
Jointly, the Afghans and NATO are trying to curb the influence of powerbrokers who operate outside the government, and iron out tribal disputes, but the Taliban are fighting back with attacks on contractors and government officials. Last month, gunmen stormed a mosque and killed the deputy mayor of Kandahar as he knelt for evening prayers.
Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak said he will tell the Americans that the situation in Afghanistan is not as gloomy as is depicted in the news. At the same time, he said he will impress upon Washington that failure is not an option and that the Taliban are just waiting for the U.S. and Afghanistan's other international partners to show signs that their support is wavering.
"If we fail here, there will be no place safe on the planet," he said Thursday.
The U.S.-Afghan relationship has suffered in recent months from friction between the two nations. The U.S. is pressing Karzai to reform his government and reduce corruption. Fed up with years of foreigners meddling in his government, Karzai is demanding respect as the leader of a sovereign state that is anxious, but not yet able, to take charge of its own affairs.
"The president of Afghanistan wants frank discussions – frank discussions – about things that can be improved," Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said.
Last month, following a visit by Obama to Kabul in late March, Karzai lashed out against the U.N. and the international community, accusing them of perpetrating a "vast fraud" in last year's presidential polls as part of a conspiracy to deny him re-election or tarnish his victory – accusations the U.S. and the United Nations have denied. Two days later, Karzai told a group of parliament members that if foreign interference in his government continued, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance – one that he might even join, according to several lawmakers present.
First, U.S. officials called the remarks "troubling." After a few days, U.S. officials worked to smooth over the rift by expressing sympathy for Karzai and the pressure he's endured and repeatedly referring to him as "commander in chief" of his country. Even if the U.S. believes Karzai is a flawed leader, it cannot afford to alienate him because he is key to a successful American exit from the war.
Karzai, however, is not likely to be coddled by U.S. lawmakers currently deciding whether to approve the Pentagon's request to spent $192 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the next year and a half – $33 billion of it for Afghanistan. Members of both parties bristled at Karzai's tirade against the U.S. last month and he'll need to earn back their trust.
Karzai's visit to the U.S. is just one item on Afghanistan's packed calendar. A peace conference, or jirga, to forge a national consensus on how to reconcile with the Taliban is scheduled later this month in Kabul. In July, foreign donor nations are meeting in the capital. And parliamentary elections are slated for September.
The Karzai government also is getting ready to roll out a new program offering economic and other incentives to low- and midlevel Taliban fighters who join the government side. Maj. Gen. Richard Barrons, in charge of reintegration issues for NATO in Kabul, said getting insurgents to lay down their weapons would be on the Washington agenda.
He said efforts to reconcile with the Taliban's top leadership will very likely be a key part of discussions as the Karzai government and Obama administration reach a common understanding about how a peace process can work.
"Then Karzai can do much more – proceed with confidence and flair – if he knows how the U.S. is set on this," Barrons said. "With that confidence, Karzai can have the peace jirga, get a mandate from the home team (the Afghan public) about how to talk to the insurgency, who to talk to and by what means."
Karzai or his intermediaries have already had at least indirect talks with top Taliban representatives, but while the U.S. supports the idea of reconciliation, the Obama administration is still working out its position on how the talks should be conducted. Talking with the Taliban, which harbored the al-Qaida leaders who orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is a delicate political issue for the U.S.
"The U.S. keeps stressing that the reconciliation process should be `Afghan-led,' but the reality is the U.S. must also be deeply involved," said Lisa Curtis, an expert on Afghanistan at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
"Karzai appears to recognize that he cannot move forward on this front without support and backing from the U.S.," she said. "The U.S. should provide a clearer picture of how it envisions a reintegration and reconciliation process unfolding so that the Afghan and U.S. governments can work in tandem and bolster each other's efforts to bring stability."